Tuning in to Soundwriting

Unboxing Audacity: Mixing Rhetorically with Digital Audio Workstations

by Mathew Gomes

2. Rhetorical Mixing: Arranging Sound in Space

As previously mentioned, mixing involves the technical challenges of balancing, treating, and combining multitrack material into a multichannel format (Izhaki, 2012, p. 5). However, many assert that this is more than mere technical performance; Roey Izhaki (2012) asserted that mixing involves the "sonic presentation of emotions, creative ideas, and performance" (p. 5). Similarly, Brendan Anthony (2018) encouraged audio-engineering curricula like that of Griffith University, which frames mixing as a "process [wherein] audio technology is manipulated by the mixer in a performance manner to create desired artistic outcomes" (p. 105). Young Guru similarly suggested that his work on "Rock Co.Kane Flow" aimed to complement De La Soul's message and the production done by Jake One while simultaneously contributing distinct sonic elements on the track (Red Bull Music Academy, 2011).

Audio engineers' discussions of mixing echo observations within writing studies and technical communication that DJs are rhetorical agents. Both Adam J. Banks (2010) and Victor Del Hierro (2019), for example, have demonstrated DJs are crucial actors in the production of hip-hop music and culture. Similarly, Anthony's (2018) endorsement of process-based approaches to audio-engineering curricula echo contemporary premises that writing involves iterative processes of invention and revision (Adler-Kassner & Wardle, 2015). Nevertheless, there remains space to consider more carefully how the rhetorical production of culturally meaningful sounds intersects with the technological production of sound.

Therefore, soundwriting instructors might also understand rhetorical mixing as a practice of arranging some of the nonverbal dimensions of noise through technological interfaces. As Steven R. Hammer (2018) wrote, noise involves the relations over time between the amplitude (or loudness) of sounds, their placement in channel space, and their frequencies. Hammer's terms are especially useful for conceptualizing the loudness of noise and audience responses to that noise. Rhetorical mixing speaks to this taxonomy and involves actions for modifying these spatial relations and arranging sound in space using soundwriting technology.

As a rhetorical pedagogy, teachers can understand mixing as an arrangement strategy that involves the practice of monitoring and modifying the relations among the amplitudes, frequencies, and placement of individual sounds in stereophonic channel space, attentive to the differences over time in maximum and average operating levels. Integrated as a part of soundwriting assignments, practicing rhetorical mixing can help writers ask ethical and rhetorical decisions about the reception of their soundwriting.

Mixing may supplement discursive purposes: Soundwriters may mix audio in such a way that it makes their messages clearer to audiences. However, mixing also encourages soundwriters to engage with nondiscursive, evocative, or sensory features of sound. Sound scholarship in writing has been concerned with the nondiscursive and sensory dimensions of sound (Ceraso, 2014). Eric Detweiler (2019), for example, has argued that attending to these sonic qualities may help scholars and teachers reconsider "longstanding rhetorical concepts like enargeia and ekphrasis" (p. 213). While some rhetorical thought has connected the concepts of enargeia and ekphrasis with vision, Detweiler has argued for more expansive definitions that include ambient and nondiscursive sounds. According to Detweiler, soundwriters and scholars might reframe enargeia and ekphrasis as concepts to express vivid detail in soundwriting, with the modified purpose of "bringing-before-the-ears" of listeners (p. 214). Mixing involves the arrangement of nondiscursive elements and offers soundwriters and teachers opportunities to further characterize sounds with evocative detail. Thus, I argue mixing contributes both to discursive and ekphrastic soundwriting purposes.

Mixing Involves the Ethics of Sound

Rhetoric and writing scholars have expressed the importance of attention to soundwriting's ethical dimensions, focusing especially on the ethics of representation. Bump Halbritter and Julie Lindquist (2018) have argued, for example, that soundwriting compositions "voice" rhetorical agents by documenting and representing those agents aurally. The ethical affordances of this "voice" for soundwriters are occasions for audiences to identify with nonverbal rhetorical agents. However, some of the ethical risks of soundwriting may involve nonconsensual voicings of rhetorical agents or misrepresentations of others' rhetorical agency. Jared Sterling Colton (2016) has argued ethical considerations should guide "sampling" or borrowing from other work, suggesting students consider whether they are acting as "caring or wounding" rhetorical agents in their sampling practices (p. 26). Colton argues that students might wound rhetorical agents by "contradicting, subverting, changing, or even violating" their values or intentions (p. 26). The ethics of representation is an important dimension of soundwriting. However, as much recent scholarship has also encouraged attention to the multimodal experience of sound (Ceraso, 2014), there is still room for additional attention to ethical considerations regarding the multimodal and material consequences of soundwriting.

Mixing involves understanding soundwriting as not only a discursive object, but a physical and affective force, which soundwriters and listeners perceive multimodally and physiologically. In the introduction to Mixing Audio, Izhaki (2012) warned readers of the physiological consequences of sustained listening:

one might lose the ability to hear high frequencies, and the really unlucky could lose substantial hearing ability. In some circumstances, very loud levels can cause permanent damage to the eardrum and even deafness. Most audio engineers, like myself, have had one or two level-accidents; the majority of us are fine. But hearing a continuous 7kHz tone is no laughing matter, especially when it lasts for three days. (p. xv)

As soundwriting instructors ask students to practice soundwriting, we should pay close attention to insights from audio engineering and consider how mixing might help teachers and students practice more ethical and sustainable modes of soundwriting. Mixing may help teachers and students pay closer attention to some of soundwriting's physical and affective dimensions.

For example, soundwriting instructors may ask students to consider how audiences or soundwriters may experience the loudness of sound compositions or individual elements of those compositions. In auditory research, loudness refers to "the perceptual strength of a sound that ranges from very soft (or quiet) to very loud" (Florentine, 2011, p. 3). While this definition places a high value on the subjective experiences of listeners, there are some consistencies among human responses to loudness, particularly physiological and psychological correlates. Common nonauditory physiological responses to loudness may include an acoustic startle reflex, which occurs in response to unexpected loud sounds, increases in stress responses; increases in blood pressure; and negative impacts on memory (Epstein, 2011, p. 90). Given some of these effects, soundwriters might critically engage questions about the ethical and rhetorical value in their compositions, as well as reflect upon the potential role of loudness within their own soundwriting practice.

Mixing Is a Strategy of Arranging Noise in Sonic Space

As an arrangement strategy, mixing involves the placement of sonic information across several spatial axes. Arrangement has emerged as an important consideration in soundwriting. Crystal VanKooten (2016), for example, observed that students frequently talked about using music to signal transitions and to provide contrast between higher-order organizational units. Both strategies represent what Kyle Stedman (2013) has described as a temporal approach to sonic space—they focus on the order in which sounds occur more than on the spatial parameters of those sounds. Stedman argued, however, that sonic space involves both temporal and spatial elements. Nevertheless, there is still a need to better name, understand, and articulate pedagogical projects related to spatial dimensions of sound.

Representation of the sonic field. It includes axes for sound levels, left and right channel space, and frequency.
Figure 1. Three axes of the sonic field in a DAW.

Mixing offers teachers and researchers a rhetorical project for further describing and learning about the spatial dimensions of sounds. As soundwriters practice mixing rhetorically, they may understand amplitudes, channel space, and frequencies as spatial parameters that contribute both to digital representations of sounds and to physical hardware used to play back audio. Additionally, they may use such an understanding toward a range of discursive and nondiscursive ends. Discursive uses of rhetorical mixing may happen when soundwriters increase the loudness of sounds that contain their message or when they "center" significant sounds between the left and the right speaker channels and pan ancillary information to one channel or another. Nondiscursive uses of rhetorical mixing may happen when soundwriters apply dynamics processing, panning, or equalization as effects to evoke specific spaces or places. More broadly, by practicing rhetorical mixing in soundwriting, students and teachers may begin to consider how the relations between these axes of sonic space (amplitude, frequency, channel space, and time) may accommodate their particular purposes as soundwriters.